Leaders and members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe shut down the zeolite mine last October. Photo from Oyate, Oglala Youth And Tribal Entertainment Media Network / Facebook
Many Questions, Few Answers on Zeolite Mining Project
By Natalie Hand and Brandon Ecoffey
RAPID CITY—Two weeks ago a meeting was held in a vacant office space in downtown Rapid City. The meeting was hosted by the Dakota Land Trust of Dickinson, North Dakota, and was billed as an informational session on zeolite mining. The meeting was designed to be a question and answer session for tribal leaders and community members on the pros and cons of zeolite mining on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation according to Brandon Fox a representative of Dakota Land Trust. Although the meeting was designed to provide information on the zeolite there no community members or media had been invited to attend raising concerns over the transparency of the meeting. While there were many questions posed to Fox, he offered few answers. Fox gave no clear information on the dangers of zeolite mining nor on how much clean water was necessary to mine zeolite and he remained unclear as to how many jobs this particular mine would offer to the reservation. When pressed on the current state of the zeolite market Fox again failed to provide answers. Joining Fox at the meeting was his business partner James Durham of Hot Springs, SD. Durham would advocate to meeting attendees that zeolite mining was safe and the existing 2.6 acre site north of Manderson could produce $600,000 per truck load. The mine Durham was referring to had been established without the consent of the Oglala Sioux Tribe last year but was shut down after tribal officials and citizens closed access to the site. The group had completely bypassed the Tribe and obtained a gravel permit from the State of South Dakota to mine gravel on fee patent land in the northern section of the reservation. However, upon an investigation by the SD Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, the permit was rescinded when officials determined that they were, in fact, mining zeolite. The legal authority of the tribe to shut down the mine had been in question until the the South Dakota Attorney General’s office recently issued a letter to the Oglala Sioux Tribe stating that, although the land in question is in “fee patent” status, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have jurisdiction over the site because the original owner of the land was a tribal member. Dakota Land Trust’s majority owner is non-member Wylie Bice, who runs a trucking company in North Dakota. Bice’s trucks haul oil, fresh water, and waste for the oil and fracking operations in the Bakken oil fields. Bice, nor Fox, admittedly have no previous experience in the zeolite mining industry. When asked who the other 49% stake holders are, Fox replied, “I don’t ask and it’s not important.” However, several sources have stated that the other owners are Oglala Sioux tribal members. The meeting ended with several tribal council members leaving before Fox finished his presentation. “I came here today, giving up my Saturday with my family, to listen and learn about the benefits and dangers of zeolite mining…not to hear about suicides and poverty. I haven’t learned anything from this meeting," stated Oglala District Representative Floyd Brings Plenty. It is unknown just how much zeolite was taken off the reservation prior to the mine being shut down but Durham stated that, “There’s 150 tons of it in a barn in North Dakota until this legal matter gets resolved!” Durham, who billed himself as Jim “Red Cloud” at the start of the meeting, has been linked to other land trust operations, including Duke Trust, Lincoln Trust, Badland Outfitters, and the HIED Group to name a few. When asked as to why a public meeting wasn’t held on the reservation to remain transparent, LaCreek District Representative Craig Dillion responded: “It was meant to be for the EDA committee and we decided to have the meeting up here ‘cause this is where they keep their rock samples.” Dillion was joined by Garfield Steele, Wounded Knee District Chairman, who both proposed the project as an economic fix to the epidemic of teen suicides that has recently taken hold on the Pine Ridge Reservation. “Every time you people say ‘no’ to these projects, more children die," stated Dillion. Steele had recently presented the company’s proposal as a potential economic development project for Wounded Knee district citing OST Ordinance 12-17, in the Oglala Sioux Tribal constitution which gives districts the authority to create their own resolutions and ordinances. Originally, Wounded Knee district passed an ordinance that would allow the district to begin exploring and reviewing bids for the mining of zeolite within their district boundaries at a meeting attended by approximately 20 district members who voted in favor of the resolution. “I understand my role, I have authority to create development in my district. I want something for our kids. We have to do something to stop the youth suicides,” stated Steele. In previous interviews with LCT Steele had stated that members of his district were tired of waiting for tribal government to create development and that he felt it was time for districts to seize upon the freedoms granted to them by the Oglala Sioux Tribal constitution to pursue development. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation there are nine districts that divide the reservation each of which operate with somewhat autonomous authourity to create laws within their own district. The extent to which this freedom exists has been a point of dispute between district governments and the tribal council. Wakpamni District Representative Sonja Little Hawk-Weston objected to Steele’s view that districts did not need the permission of the full tribal council to pursue the endeavor and she further stated that there is not a tribal mining ordinance in place and any proposed mining operation would need to go before full tribal council and the tribal membership. (Natalie Hand is a freelance reporter who lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Contact Brandon Ecoffey at firstname.lastname@example.org) Find the award-winning Lakota Country Times on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter.
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